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138. Listener Mail: Changing Fields, Comprehensive Exams, et al!

The mailbag is overflowing, and it’s time to answer YOUR questions.

First up is Leslie, whose summer internship was cancelled by COVID. Now it’s not clear whether a fall application to grad school will be successful.

Dear Josh and Dan,

I am an undergrad at a small liberal arts college looking to apply to biomedical PhD programs this year. At my school, there are very few opportunities to do research outside of course-related labs. I’ve listened to a lot of your podcasts about applying to grad school, and I’ve learned that research experience is one of the most important parts of a PhD program application. I was able to intern at a lab in a large research institution last summer, and I was admitted to an REU program on the West coast this summer. 

Like many programs, the REU was cancelled due to the pandemic. I was really excited for this opportunity, and I am worried that this will hurt my chances of being accepted. Will admissions committees take into account the fact that most summer internship experiences were cancelled this year? Should I mention on my application that I was admitted to the REU program?

We talk about all the tectonic shifts that COVID has caused in the academic world. And while some changes (like class grades moving to pass/fail) are no big deal, the quality of your research experience remains paramount.

We share some ideas for getting that experience over the coming months, and how to hedge your bets.

Next up, Ethan is hoping to enter a new research field that is far outside his prior experience.


This summer, I graduated with an undergrad degree in Mathematics and I’m about to start a PhD in Mechanistic Biology (focussing on plant genetics). Luckily, I have found a supportive supervisor with a background in computer science. I’m very hopeful she will be able to help me navigate the transition from a purely theoretical perspective to a mix of wet-lab science and bioinformatics. I’m aware of how important the supervisor-student relationship is and I’m glad I’ve developed this positive relationship.

However, I am struggling to find examples of students who have moved straight into a new topic after undergrad. The main difficulty I envisage is the culture shock I’ll face while working in the biology department, and the different expectations and values relating to research. Do you have any advice about surviving (and hopefully thriving by using my niche set of skills!) in this new environment?

Of course we have advice! 😀

We’re pretty certain Ethan’s background in math and programming are going to be in demand in his new program. As the biological sciences increasingly embrace large data sets, having some tech-chops will put him ahead of his peers.

At the same time, we think it’s important for Ethan to do the hard work of catching up on what he’s missed in the biological sciences. Learning the new field deeply will unlock insights that a single-subject scientist will never see.

He also needs to be ready to deal with the impostor syndrome that affects every student. It just may be more pronounced as he gets his feet wet in a new academic ocean.

Last, but not least, Rhiannon is wrestling with not only a pandemic, but also with comprehensive exams!

Hey Josh and Daniel,

I’ve been listening to your podcast for the better part of my PhD and I absolutely love it! It’s my favourite thing to listen to during the long days of cell culture. 😀

With the current COVID-19 situation, I’ve decided to use the time away from the bench to work on my comprehensive exams. I was wondering if you guys would consider doing an episode on your experiences with your comprehensive exams/ helpful tips to those of us currently going through the process?

Thank you for the great advice and insight into the everyday struggles of grad students!

We feel her pain – no one like comps or quals or whatever the kids call them these days.

But just as they go by different names, comprehensive exams also have a lot of variety in their format and grading. In the 14 departments of Josh’s University, no two comps are exactly alike.

That said, there ARE some things you can do to improve your chance of success.

  1. Understand the format of YOUR department’s test. How are you being graded? How do you ‘win’ the game?
  2. Talk with senior students. They’ve gone through it before, and may have advice on what worked and what didn’t.
  3. Ask questions. Your Director of Graduate Studies can give you clarifications and guidance, and tell you which resources are fair game (like asking a co-worker to proofread your proposal) and which resources are off limits (like getting your dad to write it for you.)

Someday, we’ll revisit the topic of comprehensive exams and explore whether they’re a useful assessment of your research abilities. But in the meantime, we wish you luck and would love to hear any stories you can share on how YOUR department handles this mid-training stress test.

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